On Saturday, the New York Times broke the news of a previously unreported Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 between a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer and Donald Trump Jr., Trump campaign chairman Paul J. Manafort, and Jared Kushner. Donald Trump Jr. issued a statement claiming that the meeting was “primarily about an adoption program” and not mentioning any discussion of the presidential campaign.
On Sunday, the New York Times dropped another bombshell—Donald Trump Jr. had been promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton before agreeing to meet with the Russian lawyer. Following months of speculation about whether the Trump campaign had violated campaign finance or other federal laws, it became clear to Common Cause, the organization for which I work, that the Trump campaign had in fact violated federal campaign finance law. At mid-day on Monday, we filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) alleging Trump Jr. and the campaign illegally solicited a political contribution from a foreign national in the form of information that Trump Jr. thought would damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. New details that emerged this week regarding that meeting and events leading up to it not only confirmed the allegations we made in our complaint, but also revealed evidence of additional violations of campaign finance law.
Here’s a brief run-down of team Trump’s campaign finance law problems stemming from the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting.
Who’s Legally Liable Here?
In our complaint filed Monday, Common Cause named both Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump campaign committee (Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.) as alleged violators of federal campaign finance law. To the extent any campaign finance laws were broken, Donald Trump Jr. is directly liable. He received and accepted the invitation for the meeting; he helped coordinate the meeting; he hosted and attended the meeting.
Why did we name the campaign committee? We named the Trump campaign committee because Donald Trump Jr. was an “agent” of the campaign committee under federal campaign finance law. FEC regulations define agent to include “any person who has actual authority, either express or implied, to … solicit, receive, direct, transfer, or spend funds in connection with any election.” Donald Trump Jr. played a leadership role in his father’s presidential campaign and was authorized to solicit contributions—he headlined many fundraising events.
Why didn’t we name Manafort or Kushner in our complaint? Although Manafort and Kushner attended the meeting, Donald Trump Jr. told the New York Times that he had not told Manafort and Kushner what the meeting was about. While I found it hard to believe that two incredibly busy individuals would agree to attend a meeting they knew nothing about, we opted to take Donald Trump Jr. at his word for the purposes of filing a complaint. And if Manafort and Kushner were actually in the dark heading into the meeting, it’s possible they did not commit the campaign finance law violation alleged in our complaint.
Violation We Alleged: Illegal Solicitation of a Foreign National Contribution
Federal law prohibits a foreign national from directly or indirectly making a “contribution or donation of money or other thing of value” in connection with a U.S. election, and prohibits a person from soliciting, accepting or receiving such a contribution or donation from a foreign national. Federal law defines “contribution” to include “any gift … of money or anything of value made by any person for the purpose of influencing any election for Federal office.” And the FEC by regulation defines “solicit” to mean “to ask, request, or recommend, explicitly or implicitly, that another person make a contribution, donation, transfer of funds, or otherwise provide anything of value.”
Donald Trump Jr. was offered opposition research on Hillary Clinton from a Russian. Opposition research is a thing of immense value to candidates—they regularly pay opposition research firms (like this one or this one) handsomely to produce opposition research. Donald Trump Jr. requested a telephonic meeting, which evolved into a face-to-face meeting, with a Russian in order to obtain this opposition research. Donald Trump Jr. then attended a meeting with the Russian lawyer, admittedly with the expectation of receiving this in-kind contribution of opposition research. (In his interview with Sean Hannity, and subsequent to our filing, Donald Trump Jr. also admits to “pressing” the Russian lawyer for the information that he was told to believe she had.)
The New York Times’ revelation of these facts made clear to Common Cause that Donald Trump Jr. and, by extension, the Trump campaign, had violated the federal law ban on soliciting contributions from foreign nationals.
Donald Trump Jr.’s Emails—Smoking Gun and More
Common Cause’s belief that Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump campaign had violated the federal law ban on soliciting contributions from foreign nationals was confirmed yesterday, when Trump voluntarily published some or all of the email communications that led up to his meeting with the Russian lawyer. The chronological summary of the e-mails below follows the violation as it unfolds.
On June 3, 2016, Donald Trump Jr. received an email from Rob Goldstone stating that Russian Emin Agalarov offered to “provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary” and inviting Trump to speak with Agalarov about the opposition research information. Goldstone described the offered information as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Minutes later, Donald Trump Jr. replied to Goldstone’s email that he “appreciate[d]” the offer, stating that “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer”—and then soliciting the opposition research information by requesting “a call first thing next week” with the Russian Agalarov.
This email exchange is the smoking gun proof of the allegation Common Cause made in its complaint to the FEC and DOJ on Monday: Trump received the offer of valuable “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary” from Russia (i.e., a “contribution”), responded that he “appreciate[d]” the offer and that he “love[d] it” and enthusiastically solicited the contribution from a foreign national by requesting a call with Russian Emin Agalarov to receive the offered information.
But there’s more! The emails published by Donald Trump Jr. implicate others in illegal solicitation of a foreign national contribution and suggest possible additional violations of federal campaign finance law.
Manafort and Kushner Liability?
As noted above, Common Cause didn’t name then-campaign chairman Paul J. Manafort and Jared Kushner in the complaint we filed with the DOJ and FEC on Monday, because Donald Trump Jr. told the New York Times that he had not told Manafort and Kushner what the meeting was about. Their lack of knowledge that the purpose of the meeting was for team Trump to obtain opposition research on Hillary Clinton would weaken any claim that their agreement to attend the meeting amounted to a request (i.e., solicitation) for opposition research on Clinton.
However, one of the emails in the thread published by Donald Trump Jr. is addressed to Kushner and Manafort, with the subject line “FW: Russia – Clinton – private and confidential,” the same subject line of the entire email exchange between Trump and Goldstone. This suggests that Kushner and Manafort received email fully informing them that the purpose of the meeting was for team Trump to obtain opposition research from Russia on Hillary Clinton. Knowledge of the purpose of the meeting, combined with attendance at the meeting creates grounds to investigate whether Kushner and Manafort illegally solicited a contribution from a foreign national.
Illegal Acceptance of a Foreign National Contribution?
Another legally important revelation from the Trump-published emails is that the Russians were not only offering information on Clinton, but also “official documents.” No facts have surfaced indicating that opposition research documents were actually offered to Trump, Manafort and Kushner at the meeting, but if such documents were offered and accepted by Trump, Manafort or Kushner, then team Trump may also be guilty of violating the prohibition on accepting a contribution from a foreign national (in addition to having illegally solicited the contribution). Similarly, if, contrary to Donald Trump Jr.’s claims to date that the Russian lawyer “had no information to provide,” he and Manafort and Kushner were orally given opposition research that was useful to the campaign, they would be guilty of illegally accepting a contribution from a foreign national. But a prosecutor would seemingly have a much easier time proving acceptance of an illegal contribution in the form of written documents than in the form of orally presented information.
Illegal Expenditures by Russia in Coordination with Trump Campaign?
Finally, in response to Rob Goldstone’s offer of Russian opposition research, Trump wrote “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” This statement raises the question of whether the Trump campaign coordinated with any Russians in the days, weeks and months following the June 2016 meeting with respect to Russia’s expenditures to influence the election.
Federal law regulates political expenditures made by those outside of a campaign in “cooperation, consultation, or concert, with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, his authorized political committees, or their agents” as “a contribution to such candidate.” This is known as the “coordination” law. Because foreign nationals are prohibited from making contributions and expenditures in U.S. elections, they are prohibited from making coordinated expenditures.
The FEC regulations (here and here) implementing the statutory “coordination” restriction take into consideration numerous contextual factors including, for example, whether a campaign committee is involved in the outside spender’s decisions about the “timing or frequency” of a paid public communication. Donald Trump Jr.’s reference in his email to his preferred timing for the unveiling of opposition research on Hillary Clinton warrants a closer look by investigators regarding when, in fact, Russia disseminated damaging information on the Democratic nominee and whether the Trump campaign had any involvement in such dissemination.
The mere fact that, upon hearing from Goldstone that Russians were offering opposition research on Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Donald Trump Jr. expressed no alarm or surprise in his reply suggests that team Trump was already aware of Russia’s meddling in our election, approved of such activity—and may have even been coordinating with Russia on such activity.
Donald Trump Jr.’s disclosure of his email exchanges leading up to his meeting with the Russian lawyer may have been intended, in part, to dispel allegations of wrongdoing (at least by publishing them shortly before the New York Times did), but that effort has had the opposite effect. Once again, team Trump has thrown fuel on the fire of speculation and concern regarding Russian meddling in last year’s election and possible involvement of the Trump campaign.
So what’s next? Both the FEC and DOJ have legal authority to enforce federal campaign finance laws. Illegally soliciting a contribution from a foreign national is subject only to minor civil penalties under the campaign finance act, meaning a small fine. However, it’s quite possible that an investigation by the DOJ or the FEC would reveal that the Trump campaign was actually involved in making illegal contributions or expenditures, which would be subject to criminal prosecution and penalties—not only fines, but also imprisonment up to five years.
The sad reality is that the FEC has been mired in dysfunction and partisan gridlock for years, but perhaps this threat to national security will break through that gridlock at the FEC. More hope lies in a thorough and independent investigation by DOJ special counsel Robert Mueller, who’s reportedly working hard to get to the bottom of the entire attack on our democracy by a hostile foreign power. With another federal election next year, I hope he works quickly!
Images: David Becker/Getty Images